GRANTS – They came from Cibola, McKinley, Bernalillo and San Miguel Counties to talk about the uranium-mining legacy.
Almost 100 people gathered at the county complex on Aug. 10 to explain what the uranium boom meant to those who had worked in the industry.
Mainly, they talked about the federal Department of Labor and the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP).
The legislation includes two sections: Part B documents eligibility and began on July 31, 2001; and Part E deals with the health-testing program, which began on Oct. 28, 2004.
People who had worked in the uranium and nuclear industries continue to struggle with health issues decades after the last Grants Mineral Belt uranium mine closed, according to area healthcare officials.
Several audience members said, “Amen” after one former uranium miner told the group, “They (DOL) are just waiting for us to die.”
“We invited U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman along with U.S, Representatives Martin Heinrich, Steve Pearce and Ben Ray Lujan to be here today to hear our concerns,” said Leon Tafoya, San Fidel resident, who had helped organize the public forum. “The only one who showed up is Cal Curley, from Udall’s office.”
“I’m your field rep,” explained Curley. “I cover Cibola, McKinley, and San Juan Counties plus the Navajo Nation from Senator Udall’s Albuquerque office. By working together, your voices will be heard in D.C.”
He encouraged community members to sign the petitions, which will be sent to the New Mexico congressional delegation.
Tafoya recently sent a letter to DOL that included: “After being in the program for the past three years, I have had to change primary doctors four times . . . DOL has made it very difficult for these doctors, and therefore they drop patients from this program.”
He stressed that area residents have “lost” the services of seven doctors who now refuse to accept DOL patients because the program “burdens doctors and care providers with too much paperwork.”
The attentive audience applauded loudly in response.
“We were not told about the dangers of working in the mines,” said one audience member. “We gave our lives for our country.”
“But Congress wants to get rid of all entitlement programs. We need to work together to get this program back on track. This jeopardizes our continuity of care. It affects all of us, and our hospital may quit servicing us,” concluded the San Fidel resident.
“We don’t want to say ‘no’ to anyone,” emphasized Arlene Harvey-Ferrer, Cibola General Hospital patient financial services’ director. “Originally the DOL agreed to pay 100 percent of the pulmonary testing fees. We had people coming here from everywhere in the country for the testing. Our biggest problem was not the miners, but that DOL kept changing the rules without notifying CGH.”
She added, “We cannot afford to continue this service when we get reimbursed 20-27 cents on the dollar. The hospital will continue to test county residents. We are waiting for written guidelines from DOL.”
“Our company has seen many changes as well in the guidelines needed to qualify for services that are needed for so many of the qualified individuals in this community. As a nurse, I have seen individuals not only suffer from the diseases caused by uranium, but also have had both my grandfathers die from it as well. This is a shame that the DOL has decided that the only benefits they will help with need to be lung-related. As a healthcare professional, I disagree because the body needs to be seen as a whole unit and not only the lungs can be treated,” explained Tracy Sandoval-Jones, RN, Legacy Nursing Services administrator.
Several people were using oxygen packs, and a few were confined to wheelchairs, but the most were able to walk around the room and visit with old friends.
“We’re all in the same shape,” said Bobby Baca, Milan resident.
“The mines are coming back,” responded another former miner, “and we had better start thinking about what that means to everyone.”
Editor’s Note: See Letter to the Editor from an area healthcare provider that discusses the DOL policies, and the “Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program” announcement, page B8, for related information.